Walmart Wants to Spy on Employees and Customers, Here’s Why You Shouldn’t


People fear automation.

They don’t fear that mundane and repetitive tasks will be automated and removed from their responsibility. They fear, instead, becoming enslaved by machines, becoming irrelevant and losing their ability to survive, ultimately, without employment.

Walmart’s latest patent on employee and customer surveillance represents the worst mix of automation, without any real promise to enhance the customer experience in the process. The patent covers an audio surveillance system composed of sensors to catch and analyze audio at checkouts to measure how quickly and effectively guests are being served.


It’s not just Walmart either, Amazon recently patented smart wristbands to ensure employees are always moving — or at least that their hands are.

No need to panic, yet — Walmart’s patented audio surveillance system isn’t in stores at this time. The claim is that the patent was ensured because tracking performance metrics improves efficiency, cost savings and guest satisfaction.

It’s difficult to become shocked at invasions of privacy today. With famous breaches of security (think Equifax), an internet full of cookies and data collection, and a changing legal landscape allowing widespread surveillance, privacy may no longer be expected — but it is still desired.

Jonathan Shaw wrote in Harvard Magazine, “People accept such tradeoffs in exchange for convenience. They don’t really have a choice.”

It’s natural to react that consumers have choice, but as surveillance and data collection become more ubiquitous, everyday people do have limited choice on where to buy things they need. Whether they shop at Walmart, Amazon or Target for regular items, their data is being collected “in an effort to serve them better.”


Some research has shown that just thinking we are being monitored changes our behavior. One study showed a positive impact on how workers behaved when they knew they were being filmed. Even with fewer incidents of theft and higher efficiency, what may be lost is intangible and invaluable — trust.

Whether or not Walmart ever implements its newest surveillance system, customers and employees now know that the company has the capability and the desire to use it. More and more monitoring and analysis are superimposed over data collection than ever before.

It’s possible that we have reached a point of no return on surveillance and that companies will continue to gather and analyze data by any means necessary.

What responsibility do professionals charged with improving customer experience have in advocating for or against these measures?

Is it possible, at least, to turn the focus of surveillance toward identifying and rewarding good behavior, rather than identifying and punishing inefficiency?

For example, identified as the primary concern in Walmart’s patent request is monitoring and motivating efficiency. Some have voiced concerns that this could result in cashiers being punished for being too friendly or carrying on a conversation with a customer.

But what is the value to CX of a meaningful interaction and what is the value of efficiency? What is the value of trust?

Kimberly Lanier